JAPAN PART II: HIDA
Even though this would be my third time to Japan in the span of a few years, I never really took the opportunity to travel outside of the major cities and regions. For this reason, I was really high on the idea of trying to get out to not-so-popular regions. Since we were travelling in autumn, I thought it would be nice to go see what the fall colours and foliage would be like in Japan. We settled on a visit to the Takayama, Shirakawa-go and the Japanese alps in the Hida region.
I thoroughly enjoyed this part of our trip and probably liked it most of the three legs. This region of Japan was certainly one of the most beautiful places I'd travelled to with the rapidly varying landscapes of mountains and forests. Takayama, even compared to some of the quieter streets in Kyoto, was really quaint and peaceful. The slower pace during our time in the Hida region really exemplified the amount of effort and time put into the everyday things I talked about in Part I. If I ever make a fourth trip back, the Hida region and Gifu province are definitely going to get more days.
A VILLAGE UNDER ONE ROOF
After visiting Kyoto and the Kansai region, we moved on to the next leg of our Japan trip in the Gifu prefecture. We stayed one night in-between in Nagoya so that we could get a head start and take the scenic (and only) route by train into the Hida area of Gifu. Having been to Tokyo and Osaka, Kyoto could already be considered a relatively slow Japanese city, but once we'd left the Nagoya area, things really started to slow down and become even more articulated for appreciation.
After getting off the train in Takayama, we dropped off our bags at our minshuku (family-run Japanese B&B) to free ourselves so that we could make our way to Shirakawa-go. Thatched sloping roofs are the reason you'll meet the tourist horde here. For good reason, though, as the buildings are certainly a unique sight. Much like the rest of Japan, the historic sites are very well maintained and without overwhelming commercialization. While there are houses here that are basically open to the public as museums, there are still many people who live in this village and in the gassho-zukuri (the sloped roof homes). Construction of the thatched roofs is traditionally done by people of the village working together and can usually take one or two days.
Takayama is a traditional town in Japan with plenty of shrines and old-era architecture in a city that's laid out very similar to Kyoto. It's known as "Little Kyoto" for this reason (it's even got it's own Higashiyama district). There is no real super busy shopping streets like Kawaramachi in Kyoto, nor are there local trains or subways other than the ones that travel on the line that got you here. Assuming your trip to Japan consists of more than just Takayama, you won't be missing any of those previously mentioned "big city" amenities or features anyway.
What you get with Takayama is a compact and small town that is rich with its own culture and history. Hida beef is big here (though still not particularly cheap compared to other food options), as well as the many sake breweries. The morning markets are bustling every morning with vendors selling everything from flowers and produce to jewellery and accessories made of the local yew trees that darken and develop a patina over time. As mentioned, there's Hida beef which is a must-have in the area, but there's also the Takayama ramen which is local to the area.
It felt great to walk around Takayama and see the different businesses and shrines strewn across the town. It was refreshing to see an older, smaller side of Japan where the locals and their businesses know each other well and drop all of the bureaucratic BS that you get in the bigger cities. A few days is probably more than enough for Takayama, but time moves slower there and it's easy to just ease into the ebb and flow of the town.
For the last leg of our trip to the Hida region in Japan, we left Takayama and headed over to the Okuhida region. We wanted to experience a little bit of luxury in our accommodations so we chose a ryokan with a private rotenburo (outdoor onsen) in the Fukuchi-onsen village. The name of our ryokan was Kakurean Hidaji. I'd seen it floated around on a few websites and found they had a vacancy for the night we wanted so we went with it. It wasn't cheap, but ryokans aren't usually anyway. It was nestled in a valley between two mountains and had relatively easy access to the bus that runs through the area from Takayama. The food was great, though it was not served in our room but a larger dining hall possibly due to the fact that meals often make use of irori (Japanese sunken hearths). The hospitality was top notch and the room was spacious with a beautiful cypress bath indoors and a relaxing and very warm natural onsen outdoors. In addition, there were two larger bookable private onsens that face the river or mountains (of course we had to take a quick dip in both).
Coming from Canada, we're pretty spoiled with fall foliage and so we weren't as hell bent on seeing the changing fall colours as our counterparts from Asia. That said, the fall season, particularly late October and November are incredibly beautiful seasons to visit Japan. Often, people think of cherry blossoms in the spring when they think of Japan, but in fact, the fall brings equally beautiful natural surroundings with the added bonus of having many great Japanese produce and seafood in season.
Most notably, the fall brings about matsutake mushroom season in Japan. These prized mushrooms can cost up to $1000 per kg at the start of the season due to their declining availability with reduced yields from harvest. Much like the rest of Japanese things and culture, these extremely expensive mushrooms look relatively low-key. If you didn't know, you might misidentify them for any other mushroom you'd find in a grocer. Luckily for us, our meal at Kakurean included a soup with matsutake as the main ingredient and the fragrance of the mushroom was really clear.
The Okuhida region was certainly beautiful despite our arrival being maybe one or two weeks ahead of the full colour change. The area is relatively untouched and the air is as fresh and crisp as you'll get. Small onsen villages litter the area, as well as a ropeway and cable car that carry you to the top of Mount Hotaka (the third tallest mountain in Japan). Understandably, the area is very quiet and peaceful, which also meant that public transportation was a bit sparse. In hindsight, hiring a rental car would've allowed us more time and freedom to explore the area without being at the mercy of the hourly bus schedule but I guess we'll have to save that for another trip.
We spent the last night of our stay in the Hida region soaking in the onsen. Apparently, the Japanese like to drink milk (or at least in the Hida region) after soaking in the onsen to help cool off. Despite the relaxing pace of our stay, we were still pretty tired and hit the bed to get ready for breakfast the next morning before heading back to Takayama to catch the next train on to Tokyo, our final stop.
We stayed at a minshuku while in Takayama and it was one of the best places I've stayed in in all my trips to Japan. Oyado Yoshinoya (props to having a Geocities page in 2017) is run by a kind elderly couple who don't speak a lick of English. Through various hand gestures and drawings they were somehow able to explain to us on a Japanese map where we needed to go and what the sights were to see in their town (recognizing some Kanji helped). If you end up visiting Takayama and need to find a place to stay, I'd certainly recommend Oyado Yoshinoya. If you're lucky enough to get a room in this small minshuku, take up the breakfast option because it is great value and a very satisfying breakfast (complete with the regional specialty: hida beef with hoba miso).
The ryokan we stayed at in Okuhida: Kakurean Hidaji. Located in the Fukuchi-onsen village, it's serviced by the Nohi busses that run along the Hirayu onsen line from Takayama. There is only one type of room at Kakurean, and they all include an indoor cypress bath as well as an outdoor onsen. In addition to the private outdoor onsens, they've got two larger bookable outdoor baths. The rooms are spacious and the beds comfortable. Food is locally sourced and delicious! The only drawback was that dinner was not served in our room but rather in a dining hall. Despite that, I'd certainly recommend a visit here as the natural surroundings and great hospitality and amenities make this a great ryokan.